Bert Williams (1874-1922)
Egbert Austin "Bert" Williams met George Walker in California after moving there with his family from the Bahamas (Tracy, 2004; “Bert Williams,” n.d.). He and Walker soon began to develop what would become known as perhaps the most famous black entertainer duo of the 19th and 20th centuries (Library of Congress, n.d.). Williams and Walker adopted the burnt-cork blackface that was customary of minstrels and vaudevillian entertainers of the time, advertising themselves as “Two Real Coons” to distinguish their act from those performed by white entertainers (“Bert Williams,” n.d.). While conceding to public demand for prejudiced caricature, Williams and Walker added nuance and layers of irony to their blackface routines (Tracy, 2004). This depth of performance would not always be accepted by or clear to their contemporaries, who would criticize them for reinforcing prejudiced stereotypes (“Bert Williams,” n.d.).
After the death of George Walker, Williams became part of the Ziegfeld follies and his popularity continued to grow. However, he would still struggle with being excluded from realms of mainstream respectability for which he dreamed. “He was quoted as saying in his understated way that there was nothing disgraceful about being "colored," but he "often found it inconvenient--in America"” (Tracy, 2004). After being threatened with expulsion from a segregated bar because of his race, Williams told a reporter, "They say it is a matter of race prejudice. But if it were prejudice a baby would have it, and you will never find it in a baby... I have noticed that this "race prejudice" is not to be found in people who are sure enough of their position to defy it." This conflict contributed to a tension in Williams’ performances that was noticed by theater critics, though it did nothing to harm their glowing reviews. W.C. Fields, a fellow vaudevillian, would describe him as: "the funniest man I ever saw – and the saddest man I ever knew." (“Bert Williams,” n.d.). At the height of his popularity his income was more, annually, than that of the president of the United States (Tracy, 2004).
In an essay for The American Magazine in 1918, Williams thoughtfully explored his own comic persona:
"The sight of other people in trouble is nearly always funny. This is human nature....I am the 'Jonah Man,' the man who, even if it rained soup, would be found with a fork in his hand and no spoon in sight, the man who’s fighting relatives come to visit him and whose head is always dented by the furniture they throw at each other. There are endless variations of this idea, fortunately; but if you sift them, you will find the principle of human nature at the bottom of them all." (Williams, 1918)
Bert Williams in the news:
Songs in the USF Libraries digital African American Sheet Music Collection: